Sunday, November 27, 2011

Getting the Right Consistency

You're all thinking this is another post about how Food Network rules my life, right? Wrong. That's not the kind of consistency I'm talking about.

Every time I have a long enough break from school, I drive to visit my family over 500 miles away. That's a lot of driving, and it's given me a chance to develop very specific road-trip pet peeves. Two of the biggies are related to consistency, but at opposite ends of the spectrum.

The first annoyance is the driver who can't seem to maintain speed on the highway. Not everyone has cruise control, and not everyone who has it wants to use it. That's fine. But when they vary as much as 15 or 20 mph due to nothing other than their own distraction, I get annoyed. Especially since they always seem to go fast when I could pass them, and drag their wagons when I'm stuck behind them indefinitely.

The other problematic drivers are consistent when they shouldn't be. They go one speed—say, 65 mph in a 70 zone. The highway cuts through a small town, so the speed reduces significantly, maybe down to 45 mph. They keep going 65. Too slow when they should go fast, too fast when they should go slow.

Okay, time for a writing parallel—why not?

Driver #1 is like a writer not maintaining consistency within the plot or characters. Yes, characters grow and change, but not out of the blue, and not just because it's convenient for you. Don't make your readers slam on the brakes for no reason.

Driver #2 is like a writer plowing through the ms with the same level of tension throughout. There should be peaks and valleys. Sometimes the reader needs a relative breather. Don't blast through the scenic village at the same speed you cruise through the desert.

Now I'm off to check my ms for both varieties of consistency.

Any tips, tricks, or thoughts related to consistency ... in writing, life, or anywhere else?

Monday, November 21, 2011

My YA Manifesto

I've been thinking about writing a post like this for months, ever since my From the Write Angle blog-mate J. Lea Lopez wrote her Erotica Writer's Manifesto. Finally, it's time.

Every once in a while, I run across someone who thinks writing Young Adult novels is easier than writing for grown-ups. That YA work isn't as complex, doesn't go as deep or dark, or is otherwise somehow "lesser" than its adult counterparts.

I've even heard it once or twice from other YA writers. They write YA because it's not as demanding—they don't think they could cut it as a writer for adults. Or they write YA because it's a stronger area in a struggling market.

I am an unabashed writer of young adult literature. I chose it before I knew anything about publishing markets, before I knew anything about novel-writing in general (other than my opinions as a reader). So, here's my own personal manifesto as a YA writer, the standards I'll hold myself to.

  • I will write YA only as long as I love it—reading it, writing it, talking about it.
  • I will respect my readers. Young does not mean stupid.
  • I will avoid Stupid MC Syndrome at all costs.
  • I won't be afraid of vocabulary, but will also keep it authentic.
  • I will write female characters with interesting quirks, strengths, and weaknesses.
  • I will write male characters who are more than utter hotness. (This does not preclude potential hotness ... but yeah.)
  • Combining the above, when characters fall for each other, it will be for reasons other than instinctive attraction or destiny.
  • I will generally keep adult characters out of the way, but will not operate under the presumption that all grown-ups are stupid. Teens know that only some of us are stupid.
  • I won't be afraid of complexity—complex situations for my characters, complex issues to tackle. Teens' lives are complex. They deal with it.
  • I will hope my readers learn something from my novels.
  • I will not dictate what that "something" they learn should be. I hope it varies from person to person.
  • I will keep in mind that even teens who think they have no personality and aren't special show the truth in their actions. Even the quietest teen is interesting if you really watch.

There should probably be a few more items in this list, so perhaps I'll add to it over time.

What do you think, YA writers? What do you strive for (or strive to avoid) when writing in our chosen category?

Update: A-NaNo-ing I Go

As I mentioned earlier this month on From the Write Angle, I'm currently participating in my very first NaNoWriMo. In my case, it seemed like a nice excuse to try something a little different. I'm writing my first YA contemporary—a story about a hard-of-hearing girl who transfers to a school for the deaf and finds herself caught between the Deaf and hearing worlds. So far, it's been a lot of fun to write, and is stretching different writing muscles than my usual speculative fiction.

Not sure whether it'll be any good. It'll definitely need some editing (I've already made some notes of things I know need fixing). But I'm ahead of the pace so far, so it looks like I'll get at least the 50k words done by the end of the month.

In other news, I made it through the slush pile for the Baker's Dozen Agent Auction over at Miss Snark's First Victim. Log lines and first pages will be posted on December 2nd, and the "auction" will take place December 6th.

I participated in the same event last year. While making it through the slush is a great feeling, my entry didn't receive a single bid. That was pretty rough. Hoping to have better luck this year.

Meanwhile, I'll keep myself busy with this NaNo project. :)

Friday, October 28, 2011

Maturity is Eating Your Vegetables

** This presumes you're the kind of person who doesn't like vegetables. I'm not that kind of person. I rather like most vegetables. But it's a metaphor. Just go with it. **

When you're a little kid (who doesn't like vegetables), your parents know you should eat veggies, but you don't care. You don't care that they're good for you. You don't care about those wonderful vitamins and all they can do for you. You don't care about the nasty things that can happen if you have a deficiency of those vitamins. You only care about how marshmallows and popsicles are better than asparagus and broccoli, just because they are.

Our parents bribe, cajole, and threaten us so we eat our carrots and Brussels sprouts. At some point, though, we accept that we really can't live on Pop Rocks and root beer. We really ought to eat those things that came out of dirt. Once we open our minds to them, we may even find they're not so bad.

This is one of many cool things about teaching teenagers—and no, I'm not really talking about diet and nutrition.

With the ages I teach—and particularly because I've stuck with many students over several years—I get to see a lot of them making transitions to self-aware maturity. The kid who used to blow off everything academic starting to take things more seriously, even looking back and saying he wished he'd buckled down earlier so he could've learned more. The girl who voluntarily comes in during lunch for extra help, even though we both know she'd rather be chatting with friends than torturing herself with math.

I don't get to see the transition for all of them. Some come to me with a very grounded worldview already in place. Some leave my class still thinking life will be a party—they'll put it together later ... or maybe not. (I'm pretty sure some on-paper adults are still patently immature.) But when I do see it, it's very cool.

A current example: If you recall, I teach deaf kids. That means they all have IEPs (Individualized Education Plans, required for any kid with special ed services). This month has been IEP season at my school, so we sit down for a meeting with each kid (and a parent or two) and discuss where they're at, where they want to go, and what they need to do to get there.

Most teenagers are counting down the days to graduation. "Come June of (name-the-year), I'm outta here!" My students are generally no different. Technically, though, they can stay with us until the year they turn twenty-two. Most shudder at the thought.

But then some of them take a realistic look at their goals. Maybe they want to go to college, and they look at their reading and writing levels. Not good enough ... but right in a range where an extra year of high school, really working on it, could make the difference. And they say, "Yeah, I think I should learn more so I'm ready, because college is hard."

That's not just going for the carrots—that's reaching for a big scoop of the whole vegetable medley.

I love that moment.

And I'll keep trying my best to make those veggies tasty.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Coming Soon! - WAE Network

Okay, this looks potentially cool. A social network for writers, agents, and editors. Check it out.

Coming Soon! - WAE Network

Monday, October 17, 2011

Avoiding Authorial Convenience

This is something that's bugged me forever.

When you're reading along and something happens that makes you think, "Oh, Author, you totally wedged that in just because it's convenient to the direction you want the plot to go in. Lame!"

Don't get me wrong. We all do it. We all contrive events to shape the story. I've even discussed the joys of throwing wrenches into the works, just to mess with my characters. The problem is when the reader can tell that's what you're doing.

So, how to avoid? I think one key is consistency. If you get halfway through the rough draft and decide making Character X your MC's brother (plus he knew it all along, but kept it secret) is going to solve all your problems, great. But realize you're going to have to go back through and reshape Character X's early behavior. Not enough to give it completely away if it's a big twist, but enough that looking back, the reader can say, "Oh, yes, I see now!" (Foreshadowing/Hinting vs. Telegraphing ... have I done a post on that yet? No? Hmm, I probably should.)

When things come out of nowhere—even when there's nothing in the text to explicitly preclude them—it's just annoying. As a reader, it makes me feel like I'm being jerked around. I don't like that feeling.

What if the twist or turn comes in a later book in a series, though? What if earlier books are already published, thus establishing "canon"? That's trickier. I guess all you can do is try your best to make character and plot choices that are reasonably organic to what's already set in stone.

This is one of those things that I'm right on top of as a reader (and a hyper-critical one at that), but worry that I don't know how to avoid/spot/fix in my own writing. So if anyone has other thoughts or suggestions on how to prevent your readers from rolling their eyes, please—let's hear them!

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Reading Spree: Conquering the TBR Mountain

Last week, on a whim, I made a little poster and put it up in my classroom. It's my TBR (To Be Read) Mountain. There are seventeen books on it, and my stated goal is to finish them all before the end of 2011.

Yeah. Seventeen of them. During the school year. And while working on writing stuff at the same time.

Good thing I'm a fast reader. Double-good thing I have a full week off at Thanksgiving.

I posted it so my students could see me setting reading goals, and they'll be able to watch my progress as I note the date I complete each book on the poster. Hopefully it'll be a fun little side thing to talk about in class ... y'know, other than common denominators, derivatives, and quadratic functions.

While I'm at it, I might as well make my goals even more public, so here's the list and the little bit of progress so far (in no particular order other than the order my brain remembers them since I'm not at school):

  1. Monsters of Men by Patrick Ness—finished 9/30
  2. Goliath by Scott Westerfeld—finished 10/5
  3. The Curse of the Wendigo by Rick Yancey
  4. The Isle of Blood by Rick Yancey
  5. Everlost by Neal Shusterman
  6. Everwild by Neal Shusterman
  7. Everfound by Neal Shusterman
  8. The Death Cure by James Dashner
  9. The Dead-Tossed Waves by Carrie Ryan—finished 10/13
  10. The Dark and Hollow Places by Carrie Ryan—finished 10/17
  11. Carrier of the Mark by Leigh Fallon
  12. Dark Inside by Jeyn Roberts
  13. The Slayer Chronicles: First Kill by Heather Brewer
  14. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie—finished 10/10
  15. Crossed by Ally Condie
  16. Ashes by Ilsa J. Bick—finished 10/7
  17. Possession by Elana Johnson

And really, I'm just impressed that I remembered all 17 titles.

We'll see how this goes.

Do you guys have any reading goals?

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Everything I Need to Know, I Learned from ... Food Network??

I admit it, I've been completely addicted to Food Network lately. (You'd think it'd do damage to my waistline, but I've found when you see all this extravagant, wonderful food that's far better than anything you can get your hands on in real life, you don't actually eat that much.)

In particular, I've watched a lot of the competition shows they have: Cupcake Wars, Iron Chef America, Chopped, Sweet Genius, etc. And I've learned a couple of keys about being classy while competing against your peers.

#1 Don't Compare Really, I already knew this, but I've seen just how ugly it is when it doesn't happen on these shows.

The classiest competitors talk about what they were going for, how they went about it, what inspired them, and so on. They don't even mention what their fellow contestants did. The focus is on what they did, and is it good enough?

Inevitably, someone comes along who makes some remark (either blatant or backhanded) about another chef's dish or execution or style, or how their own is better. Every time, I want to mute the TV. It makes me cringe and grit my teeth.

This applies easily to the writing world. It's harder when I'm in the fight, rather than watching from the other side of the television, but it's still important. The important thing is my writing. How I pull it off, whether it's good enough ... not whether it's better than Writers X, Y, and Z. And if I must have such thoughts, I should keep them to myself. Or at least vent them in absolute privacy.

#2 Don't Talk Back to the Pros Oh, when contestants (on ANY reality show) talk back to the judges, I want to scream at them and run away, all at the same time. You don't have to agree with them. You don't even have to take their advice if you don't want to. But you should respect that there's a reason they're sitting in judgment and you're not. They have expertise, and have earned the right to be publicly opinionated.

Again, obviously applicable to writing. How often have we seen people bashing agents, editors, and publishers? Posting comments to their blogs about how they're outdated dinosaurs and no one needs them anymore? Or those horror stories about writers who send scathing replies to form rejections of their queries?

Yeah, publishing's changing, but really? That's no excuse for dissing people who DO know a thing or two about the industry. Have some respect, and behave professionally. It'll make YOU look better, and who doesn't want that?

So, thank you, Food Network, for reminding me not to be a full-of-myself jerk as I attempt to navigate the world of getting published. I'm sure everyone who has to interact with me thanks you, too.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Math Rant: College Professors

The subject of this particular rant is a few years behind me, but the effects linger. And now, the horrors are being inflicted on my former students, and it's enough to make me want to inflict something of my own—a forceful *headdesk* on the perpetrators.

Through my undergrad and graduate schooling, I encountered a number of college mathematics professors. Here are two facts:

#1 Many of them are absolutely brilliant mathematicians.

#2 Hardly any of them can teach to save their lives.

I even had a few classmates who were likely to join their ranks in the future. Kids who could do multi-variable calculus without breaking a sweat and thought abstract algebra was a great weekend activity. Kids who could not teach it.

Make no mistake. Doing math and teaching math are two entirely different skill sets. Thing is, the teaching skill requires the doing skill, and then some. (Do I get tetchy with the old "Those who can, do; those who can't, teach" line? Don't get me started.)

A former student came by to visit the school the other day and we chatted about how her first semester at a new college is going. Because she has issues with test-taking, she didn't do so hot on her placement exam, which landed her in a math class that's dirt-simple for her. She understands the material, but then the teacher goes and confuses her by insisting she use his methods, which she didn't understand. She tried to ask a question to clarify, and he cut her off.

Okay, this particular girl is very assertive and kind of blunt, so maybe she could have handled the exchange better. I don't know—I wasn't there. Then there's the fact that he tried to hold her interpreter back after class to talk to the interpreter about the student needing an attitude adjustment. (Grr... don't get me started on that, either. That's a rant for another time.)

Bottom line, this student didn't expect the same kind of bend-over-backwards-to-help teaching she got in high school. She just wanted to understand.

If there's one thing I remember about several of my college math classes, it was the clear undercurrent: If you don't understand the magic I'm performing on this blackboard, it's your own fault, because you must be too stupid to grasp it. No one ever said it in words, but you felt it.

Thankfully, they're not all like that. I found a handful who didn't just want to get their teaching hours out of the way so they could get back to their "real" work. The kind you could ask a question, and they didn't just repeat their last two statements. They elaborated on the in-between step, or what justified some conclusion.

If you find college math professors like that, add them to your Christmas card list for life. They're rare, but they're also golden.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Math Rant: Subtraction

This will not be a rant about how even some kids in advanced math classes have to count on their fingers to subtract (or add). I'll save that one for another time. (For the record, with deaf kids "counting on fingers" is fairly equivalent to tapping on the desk and counting in your head.)

No, this rant is about the failure of someone (or several someones) earlier along the line failing to address both types of subtraction.

Two types of subtraction? Whatever are you talking about, Miss Lewis?

Yes, two types.

If you think of beginner's subtraction, what do you think of? Probably the idea of "take away." Johnny has 10 apples, and Jimmy takes 4 of them away. How many does Johnny have left?

Nothing wrong with that. Totally valid interpretation of subtraction. But it's not the only one, dagnabbit!

There is also the HOW FAR perspective. And I don't have the stats to prove it, but my gut says this is the more frequently useful angle in real life.

Take the problem 11 minus 8. Here's what I see over and over in my classroom:

*holds 11 on one hand, then starts counting off on the other*

10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3. I counted 8 places before 11, and the answer is 3.

Why? WHY? Even if you must count, here's all it takes:

*hold 11 on one hand, start counting off on the other*

10, 9, 8. I've arrived at 8 and it took 3 steps to do it, so the answer is 3.

To me, this says these kids were taught a procedure for subtracting and memorized it without really going deeper. So I need to dig in and do some remodeling in their heads.

Even better is when they see 11 - 8 on the paper and borrow. So the tens place becomes zero and the ones place becomes ... 11. Fortunately, that's a little more rare.


Tuesday, August 23, 2011


One of my co-workers (an English teacher) has a serious addiction to books. I know a lot of us think we do, but I'm telling you, most of us don't have anything on this friend of mine. In the past year, I believe she's spent thousands of dollars on books ... frequently at bargain prices.

Yeah, it's a lot of books.

That's okay, though, because it means our students have more access to current MG and YA novels than they would otherwise.

She moved into a different classroom this year, so it was a great excuse for getting organized. One day last week, she asked me and another teacher who reads a lot of MG/YA (the other math teacher, ironically) to come over during lunch and help her figure out the sub-genres for the fantasy and science fiction.

It was a fascinating experience. And really hard at times.

Some books I was already familiar with and could immediately declare as steampunk, urban fantasy, or paranormal (we meant largely paranormal romance, but left "romance" off the label so as not to scare the teenage boys away). Some books I could just glance at the cover art and/or title and could guess what it was, then checked the back cover to verify.

Those back covers are where a few less-obvious books gave us trouble. Some looked like a hybrid of more than one thing. Others fell somewhere in-between two genres. For instance, some were clearly high fantasy, others clearly urban fantasy, but there were some that didn't seem "high" enough for high or "urban" enough for urban. What are they? We ended up with a "just plain fantasy" category, which didn't quite satisfy me.

I also felt like Terry Pratchett should have a section all his own. If she'd had more books of his, I might've insisted.

I've critiqued queries before where the writer needed feedback on narrowing down the genre, and it hasn't usually been that hard. Maybe it's due to a fundamental difference between queries and cover blurbs. Even though they're similar and we're advised to use the same mind-set when writing queries, they serve slightly different purposes. Some cover blurbs are much more teasing, with much less revealing detail than a query will often have.

So when someone says you need to clearly identify your genre, it's not just so the publisher knows where to shelf your book. It's so hyperorganized English teachers can categorize it, too.

Do you have any rules of thumb for identifying the many flavors of sci-fi and fantasy? Any favorite genre-breaking examples?

P.S. Our moment of shame that afternoon: We couldn't figure out where to place A Wrinkle in Time. It seems like I must have read it once, but it was when I was too young (and read too large a volume of books) to remember details. And her copy had no blurb.

*crawls under rock*

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Guest Post: The Critecta

In the spirit of critique group collaboration, today's post is by my crit partner Caroline (Skyval on AQC).

Finding the special someone(s) who can complete your writing life is a lot like finding the special someone in your love life—damn hard. Where can you find these excellent people? How do you know when it's a good fit? What should you look for in a critique buddy? And what do you have to offer?

Our little trio met when we serendipitously crossed paths over at AgentQuery Connect, and we quickly discovered that ours was the kind of chemical balance you only find in a room full of professionals wearing white coats. We may all three end up in a room very much like that one day, but that's besides the point. Together, we're going to triple-team the concept of our Critecta—you can see RC's post at Writer, Writer, Pants on Fire, and Mindy's at From the Write Angle.

I started writing in September of 2009—much later than Mindy and at about the same time as Rachel. After completing my first draft in thirty days, declaring myself a genius, and receiving the usual “This is amazing”’s from my friends and family, I screwed up my courage and showed my MS to a brilliant writer friend. After three nail-biting days, her verdict. “You’ve got something here, but this needs A LOT OF WORK.”

So while I rewrote under my mentor’s watchful eye, I googled around, found AgentQuery, and started my new career as a lurking wannabe writer spying on the grown-up table. I’ve made many friends at AQ, but was drawn to BBC (Mindy) right off by her sense of humor, spot-on posts, and general devotion to her own craft as well as the time she spends helping others.

It’s been a long time since I had a first date. Okay, okay, a VERY LONG TIME, but finding my perfect Critecta followed that same heart-thumping, palm-sweating course. The from-afar admiring. A judgement call on compatibility. The dance of who will make the first move. The simultaneous reading hoping she doesn’t think I suck and wondering how she got into this. Then, “Does she LIKE me?” “Is she just being nice?” “How honest can I be here?” “Will she hate me if I point out this inconsistency?” “Can I really be myself?” I discovered that Mindy is refreshingly honest, down to earth, and her crit comments are like having a conversation while being doused with cold water and bleach over a cup of my favorite cappuccino. With chocolate.

Rachel came next. We both had entered the WEbook Page2Fame contest and although we had exchanged a few PM’s on AQ, we hadn’t talked about critiquing each other because our sub-genres were so different. Then in the course of the WEbook contest, we each had to rate the other’s first fifty, liked what we read, and decided to give each other a whirl around the dance floor. And what a compatibility it was! I told Mindy about Rachel and our Critecta was born.

Rachel’s technical skills are unparalleled. Mindy’s overall story-telling ability and superior voice and dialog skills are priceless. And me? I’m not sure what I contribute besides being a willing cold reader. We use Buzzword (a great tool by Adobe that allows highlighting and notes) and sometimes when reading Mindy’s work, I leave an occasional comment just to let her know I’m still reading but have been too engrossed to comment. We all contribute to the teen-speak—Mindy and Rachel both work with teens every day while I’ve actually SURVIVED raising two of ’em.

I do recall one bit of commentary of which I’m proud. In Rachel’s FINGERPRINTS, her MC is a brilliant science/techno geek (Hah! Much like Rachel herself...) and in one scene, Lareina and her equally brilliant boyfriend are working on a problem that flew over my head. But I understood it well enough to get that the characters understood it which is exactly the way it should have come off. A genius piece of writing on Rachel’s part and a scene I will never forget.

The other thing that makes our Critecta special is that we drop everything when the others need something read RIGHT NOW. When my girls ring me on email, I’m there. Mindy’s latest was so good and she was pumped late one night to get her query out. Sometimes you are just feeling it RIGHT THEN, ya know? Rachel and I critiqued her query for hours, Mindy sent it out that night, and voila, she got an agent. If I had any small part in making that happen for her, that’s all I need. I can’t speak enough about how much I’ve learned from my beloved crit partners, and although we’ve never heard each other’s voices in reality, we know each other’s voices through our writing. Priceless.

Do have your own Critecta? (Or duo, or quartet, or whatever...) How did you find them? What’s your process, and why does it work for you?

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Random Musings: What is Funny?

Yeah, I know. It's subjective. At the same time, I've often found myself perplexed by what some people find amusing. Something wrong with me? Or them? Or just different strokes?

When someone trips and falls, I don't laugh ... unless they're laughing (because laughter is contagious) or they're goofy and hammy as they get up.

Side story: My first year of teaching, I was trying to navigate down an aisle in my first period class when my foot caught on a backpack strap. Boom! Down to my hands and knees. (Not a total face-plant.) I laughed. My students freaked out wondering if I was okay, especially the very remorseful owner of the backpack. Those were good kids.

I'm not amused by the lewd, crude, and rude. It falls flat for me. This explains why I see very few so-called comedies.

Pranks where the goal is to humiliate the target? So not funny to me.

Lest you think I'm too saintly and need to get back to polishing my halo, I am a fan of sarcasm. But I try to be careful with how I use it, only engaging with people I know well enough. They need to know I'm being sarcastic and that I'd never mean it in a hurtful way.

Witty comebacks and good-natured verbal sparring can be very funny. Clever wordplay. Well-placed irony.

Often what I find funny is the unexpected, the things that come out of nowhere. Maybe that seems like a contradiction, because an algebra teacher getting her ankle ensnared by a wily backpack certainly qualifies as unexpected. Like I said, since I was laughing, I really wouldn't have minded if the kids had laughed, too.

I guess I don't like the idea of being amused at someone else's expense. That makes blanket statements tough, because situations that look similar on the surface might affect the people involved in very different ways.

So next time your math teacher trips and falls, ask if she's all right, give her a hand, and help her laugh it off.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

"Get Your Foot in the Door" Contest

Here's another contest, this one over at Gabriela Lessa's site and judged by one of four Sourcebooks editors (depending on genre). One-sentence pitch and the first paragraph (or two as long as the total is under 170 words). Checking out other entries is part of the fun, so here goes.

One-Sentence Pitch: When telepathic Ziv’s newly normal life is interrupted by a military request, she must decide if she belongs in humanity’s war, or on Earth at all.

Opening Paragraphs: Blades of grass brush my toes, forcing me to suppress a shudder. Textures like this still feel unnatural, wrong. Too irregular and unpredictable. Shouldn’t have worn sandals. Despite my physical reaction, I continue across the lawn toward school. If I force myself to endure it enough times, maybe I’ll finally get used to it.

A familiar voice calls out behind me. As I stop to let Khalil catch up, his golden-bronze skin seems to radiate the warmth of the sun back out to the world. Not for the first time, I wonder if he finds my pale face as cold as I do. The thought is interrupted by a tickle on my foot, different from the grass. A ladybug crawls across my toe, and I reflexively clench my fists, not letting myself fritz out.

Friday, August 5, 2011

The Value of Expertise

I might get myself in trouble with this one.

As a teacher (and especially when I worked in "regular" ed), I've heard the following line more than once from parents: "I know what's best for my child."

Really? If so, why do we have pediatricians? Dentists? Why send children to school at all, where they'll be taught by someone who is not the parent of said-child?

We trust that doctors know more than we do about physical health. Most of us take our cars to mechanics because they know more about engines and carburetors and serpentine belts than we do. They have something we don't—EXPERTISE on the subject.

Same goes for teaching. I studied enough about mathematics and the teaching thereof to earn two degrees. I've taught just about every level of math that exists in secondary education. Perhaps I know a thing or two.

That's not to say parents (or anyone) should blindly trust the experts. But to make an informed argument, they need to gain some expertise of their own.

Ask questions. Do some research. Try a few different things—that would definitely make you an expert on what has and hasn't worked in the past. Make sure you understand the reasoning behind the advice being given to you before you dismiss it.

Wait a minute. This sounds familiar.

It applies to writing, too.

Writers often say we know what's best for our stories. In some ways, yes ... but in some, maybe not. Does the writer have the expertise to make that judgment?

An editor or agent generally does have that expertise. They've studied, trained, and had experience in the world of writing. They might just know more than we do about what does or doesn't work. (Yes, it's a very subjective industry, but some things are clear-cut enough.)

Agents are too overwhelmed to give much feedback, and most of us don't have access to an editor, nor the means to pay a freelancer. So we're left to gain at least some expertise ourselves.

How can we do that? I have friends who've been through MFA programs, and it shows in both the polish and cohesive structure of their work. But that may not be the route for all of us. There are How-To books of various types. Expertise galore, ready for us to access it.

Reading can be a great way, too, but we can't just read. We have to read on a "meta" level. When we enjoy something, we need to think about why—what did the author do right, and how? If something annoys or bores us, we need to figure out what's behind that, too.

Will all of that ever equal the knowledge and experience an industry pro can bring to the table? Probably not. But that's where strength in numbers comes in. Solid critique partners who've also done their part to gain expertise can have a huge effect on our outcome. (More on that coming on a special post August 15th.)

The bottom line is that we shouldn't plug our ears and chant that we know what's best for the story simply because we wrote it.

Well, really, we can do anything we want in our novels ... if we don't care about getting published.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Math Geek Meets Novelist

No one's shocked by the declaration that I'm a math geek who happens to write, right? Sometimes the math-geekiness informs my writing with character quirks or the way I apply logic. These are relatively small ways, where creativity and command of the language still play a larger role.

Once in a while, though, the geek takes over, and graphs ensue.

Really, this makes sense. The main reason graphs exist is to give us an instant visual of the big picture. Since a novel is hundreds of manuscript pages, it's pretty difficult to look at it all at once as a whole.

What kinds of graphs? I'll share a couple. (You can click them and get a better look.)

The first is a bar graph I made early on in my writing life to see how much my chapter lengths were varying. (Yes, this was also a case of my number-OCD coming out to play.) Nothing too fancy, just a simple graph in Excel.

I haven't done one of these for my more recent manuscripts, but it gave me some thoughts about overall structure when I was first starting. Interesting note: the manuscript graphed here had twenty-five chapters at the time, but I eventually realized breaking some of them up worked better.

The second is one I just did for the first time this week as an experiment. I was curious how different plot "threads" or themes were distributed throughout the novel. Had I dropped a thread in and then neglected it for too long before it came up again? Were the key themes getting the amount of attention I feel they deserve?

So I listed three key threads, two secondary (sort of) ones, and a trait of the MC I wanted to make sure had been sprinkled consistently through the story. Then I started reading and noting the location where each item pops up or is addressed (shown as a percentage, i.e., 25% of the way through the novel). I made the graph using a middle school statistics program called Tinkerplots (yay for being a math teacher!), though something similar could be made using Excel ... I think it'd just be a little more complicated.

I'm pretty pleased with the results. The three main threads obviously have sections where they each take precedence, and the "sprinkling in" looks pretty much how I want it.

Yes, I'm a geek.

Have you ever analyzed your writing in a "non-writing" way? Have you applied your day-job skills to something unexpected?

Thursday, July 28, 2011

If You Think It's Easy, You're Probably Doing It Wrong

DISCLAIMER: I have not self-published (yet ... I know, I keep saying that). That said, I've gone through a lot of the necessary processes—practicing, if you will. I've played with designing covers, some of which you can also see by clicking the title tabs at the top of the page. I've done interior formatting and had proof copies made. I've made eBooks in both EPUB and MOBI formats (not just preparing my Word doc for some company's automated conversion process—I figured out how to do it myself).

So that's the headspace the following chunk of opinion comes from.

There's a lot of buzz lately about literary agents forming e-publishing wings. Some are set up more to facilitate their existing clients' self-publishing efforts, while others seek to be full-fledged publishers. The latest is over at Bookends, with lots of very passionate responses on both sides of the is-it-ethical and is-it-smart debates.

I'm not going to weigh in on those aspects. People far more intelligent and experienced than I are already doing that. But there's a particular idea in the responses that I've seen many times. Not just there—I've seen it in various writing forums whenever self/e-publishing comes up:

"Do it yourself. It's easy."

Okay, the physical act of uploading your manuscript to Amazon, B&N, or Smashwords is easy. But I've been scoping out the results, and it's clear many writers are missing the truth:

Doing it is easy. Doing it well is hard.

Forget the trials of marketing, getting anyone to even find your book among the many on Kindle. I'm just talking about the front-end job of getting it prepped for daylight. Let's look at the aspects that as a reader make me tear my hair out.

* * * * *


Oh, my ... covers. My brother is a graphic designer. I don't know nearly as much as he does, but I've absorbed a few things through conversations with him. And I'm not saying my covers are super-fabulous—remember, I'm just playing and experimenting so far. (But an editor at HarperCollins did compliment my Fingerprints cover. *blush*)

Do you honestly have a good eye for design? Or do you think most things look "good enough"? Scanning the Kindle listings, it's not hard to spot a "homemade" cover. (And I will say, certain smaller publishers aren't much better with their cover designs.) If you've cut elements from different images and stuck them together, have you really made it look like one seamless whole that was meant to be that way?

In most cases, no.

So, what to do? Pay for a graphic designer? Maybe. But if so, beware. I've seen freelance graphic designers with credentials and everything who create crap cover designs. If you're paying far less than $100, you might get a very nice (but basic) cover, or you might get something my high school students could out-do during their lunch break.

If you want something really high-quality, that doesn't scream DIY from a mile away, you have some options. Invest some real money in it. Have/develop the skills and tools yourself. Or be lucky enough to know someone with the talent who's willing to do you a favor.

And for goodness sake, make sure you have the proper rights to use any stock images you need. Just because you found it on the internet and did a right-click/save doesn't mean it's fair game. Same goes for fonts. (You didn't know you can't just use whatever fonts you have installed on your computer? Go do some homework.)

* * * * *


I've already done a full rant on this subject before, so I'll just reiterate a few things.

If you use a meat-grinder, you get hamburger ... not steak.

Maybe you like hamburger. If you do it very carefully and make sure the "meat" going in has everything just right, you might be able to get a five-star, gourmet burger out of it.

Personally, I have a hard time trusting automated conversions, even specialized ones like Kindle uses. I really don't trust an automated process that takes one file and spits out five or six different formats. You don't have to be a control freak like me, but triple-check your results in ALL formats to make sure the result is pristine.

* * * * *


Oh, yeah, this is about a story people will (hopefully) read.

This is the biggest roadblock for many. To get the kind of intense, whip-it-into-shape editing my friends with Big-6 publishing deals have gone through, you would have to spend more than $1000. It's not just proofreading, though some of the errors and typos I've seen in self-pub'd works still make me shudder. Here's a little story to illustrate:

Once upon a time, there was a novel posted at an online writers' community. I read the first few chapters and thought it was marvelous. Surely this would be picked up by an agent. Surely it had a better shot than most at being published.

Alas, it did not happen. Eventually, the author decided to self-publish. I remembered loving what I read, so I gladly made the purchase.

As I read the whole thing, I was heartbroken. It quickly became obvious why it didn't make it on the traditional route. Nothing to do with the mechanics of the writing; everything to do with the craft of the story. Repetitive recaps every time a new character entered the picture. Disbelief that could no longer be suspended even by a reader eager to love the story (such as myself).

There are those who say you can edit well enough if you have a good critique group. I believe that can be true. But is your critique group tough enough on you? Do they know enough to spot overarching problems, or are they just good for helping you polish and tighten sentences?

If you can't afford a 4-digit editing bill (and really, how many of us can?) there are other options. Read with a critical eye, not just for the words on the page, but how the story is shaped and woven together. Look at some books on craft until you find some that work for your style, genre, etc. Maybe take a class or two.

And if you're lucky enough to find critique partners who really know what they're talking about and can tear your work apart in a way that makes you thank them for the torture ... dig your claws in and never let them go.

* * * * *

I'm sure I've only scratched the surface of what goes into making a self-published book top-notch. It's NOT easy. (Neither is going the traditional route.) It doesn't mean you necessarily have to spend your life savings. It does mean you should work your tail off ... and put in some major time between finishing the "writing" part and putting the product on the market.

Is it worth it? After all, you're probably only charging around $1-5 for your eBook, right? Maybe you're embracing the concept of a pulp fiction revival and are glad to be a part of it.

That's great. But I say you should still respect your readers enough to make sure anything you put in front of them is nothing less than awesome.

Did I miss anything? Other pet-peeves in self-published work? Or am I just way too picky? ;-)

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Why Everyone Should Learn Sign Language


I've thought this before, but it hit me again this morning. Every Tuesday this summer, I've been helping my dad work on their backyard. Today, we cut big landscape blocks in half. (BTW, 12-inch concrete saw with diamond blade? Awesome.) Being good little workers, we wore safety glasses and earplugs.

Have you ever tried to talk to someone while you're both wearing earplugs? Better yet, while a power saw is running? How much easier would it be if my dad knew sign language?

And that's not the only situation where it would be handy. Other times, my dad's been down in the walkout from the basement while I'm above in the backyard, and the A/C is running nearby. Very hard to hear what he's saying.

Then there's my favorite: restaurants. I love going out with deaf friends and colleagues. Doesn't matter how noisy it gets, conversation is still just as easy to follow. One time, there was a full mariachi band in the room, but we kept chatting away. No problem.

When I'm out with non-signers and the restaurant's noisy/the acoustics are lousy? All I can think is, "If only!"

Oh, and if you make the acquaintance of a deaf person (who signs)? Bonus! Easy communication.

To my international friends, though, sorry. Your sign language isn't my sign language, unless you're in Canada (but not Quebec). Yes, different countries have different sign languages. (I know this is a shocker to some.)

Can you guys think of any situations where it'd be nice if everyone involved knew sign language?

Monday, July 18, 2011

Blog Contests: Getting Back on the Horse

There's a pitch contest over at Chanelle Gray's blog starting today and going until July 25th (or until they hit 150 entries, whichever comes first). First line, two-sentence pitch, and literary agent Victoria Marini.

I got a little shaken up the last time I entered a blog contest (different from this one, and it was ages ago), but it's about time I shake it off and try again. After all, what have I got to lose?

What experiences have you guys had—good, bad, or ugly—with blog contests?

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Imperfection vs. Idiocy

Here's another case where something I noticed as a reader has carried over to my writing. Flawed characters are a good thing. Perfect characters are boring, not to mention severely unrealistic. If characters are perfect and always do the right thing, there's no interest and frequently no story.

Like everything else, though, flawed characters can go to an extreme that doesn't work any better. A student of mine (now graduated) probably shouldn't ever get an e-reader, because judging by our conversations, I think she may tend toward throwing books across the room. Or at least slamming them down on a desk.

The reason? Idiotic protagonists.

This is particularly prevalent in certain YA novels (or at least, that's where I notice it, since it's the world I know). Teenagers are in a stage of life that's naturally more self-centered, and maybe that leads to the idea of making dumb decisions.

Okay, we all make bad decisions. That's normal. But a character's bad decision should be something that a real person would really do under those circumstances. More particularly, the bad decision should be consistent with what's known about the character ... not just something that's convenient for the plot. (Hmm, I think that goes back to my post on front-end/back-end motivation, too.)

Here's the thing. I've only known one teen in my whole life (including when I was a teen) who seemed to be 100% self-interested in their actions. And in that case, a personality disorder was likely. I also have a hard time thinking of any teens who act outright stupid in the way some novel characters do.

A cohort of the super-self-interested character is the one with false selflessness. The one who supposedly does what she does because she loves the boy, or wants to keep her friends safe. But when you look at it, the actions don't match the supposed motivation. The character is just being stupid ... because it's convenient.

So where's the line and the balance? How do we instill our characters with realistic, interesting flaws (and appropriately get them in trouble) without our teen readers thinking we're insulting the intelligence of their species?

Monday, July 11, 2011

Book-Nerds vs. Science-Geeks

This is one that's been on my mind for a while. While labeling individuals is rarely productive, I often ponder certain categories or types (recognizing the variability within any given category). So first, let's define our terms.

A book-nerd is pretty straightforward—someone who loves books. They devour books, possibly spending more on them than they do on food. Generally, book-nerds are somewhat eclectic in their tastes, sampling everything from literary fiction to romance to horror to non-fiction. They worship the written word.

A science-geek (and for the sake of this post, I'm going to include math-geeks, even though they don't always coincide) is analytical, loves technology, and wants to know how everything around them works. They are often (but not always) big readers as well, possibly to the same extend as many book-nerds.

In fact, there is some overlap between the two groups. I know some science-geeks who are definitely book-nerds. What I want to talk about is another subset of the geeks—those who do read, but don't qualify as book-nerds.

These are people who read voraciously, but probably don't have much interest in Shakespeare, Dickens, or anything else considered classic. Probably not much in the field of literary fiction, either. Doesn't mean they don't appreciate literary qualities, but more often than not, they'll be reading (you guessed it) science fiction and fantasy.

What's important to these readers? For one thing, consistency in all aspects. Heaven help you if you commit a continuity error. For another, worlds and characters worth coming back to—thus the ubiquitous serial nature of the genres. They also want what every other reader wants—a good story with proper development.

It seems like the YA publishing industry is dominated by book-nerds. That's okay, and probably as it should be. After all, they need to make their living on books, so it's best if they love them, preferably in wide variety. But sometimes I wonder if even agents who rep the speculative fiction genres are part of the book-nerd/science-geek overlap and don't necessarily get the straight-up science-geek readers.

It's kind of like the film industry. Traditionally, a sci-fi or fantasy movie will only get respect for effects, makeup, costumes, and maybe music. Some people assume that the fans don't care about good screenwriting or acting as long as there are enough explosions. So the budget goes toward effects and explosions. Character development is glossed over. The end result might make money, but gets little respect.

There is a place for science-geeks in the world of literature, though. And I'm always excited when I find an excellent book that speaks to that part of me (rather than the book-nerd part ... I'm an overlapper in some respects). I'm always on the lookout for more. Books that use sci-fi or fantasy elements as more than window dressing, but still have a great story at the core.

Got any recommendations?

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Humility is Sexy

Disclaimer: I'm not a literary agent. I don't really know what they think, beyond the thoughts they put out there on their blogs and Twitter feeds. (I do not listen to the haters who think agents are an elitist clan of devil spawn who take joy in crushing the dreams of aspiring writers.)

But I think they would agree with the title of this post. Let me explain why.

First, you have to understand humility. Contrary to popular belief, it isn't beating up on yourself. It isn't saying your writing is crap, especially right after someone has complimented it. It is not a lack of confidence. I grew up with this simple definition:


You can definitely believe you know a few things while acknowledging there's room to know more. I have a student who epitomizes this. With all her accomplishments, she could easily have the biggest head on campus. Yet bragging would never occur to her. She does what she does, no big deal, but if you compliment her, she'll thank you.

She doesn't tell you all the reasons why your compliment is misplaced.

So, why do I suspect agents find humility sexy? I'm sure they want confident writers who believe in their ability (well, most of the time—we all have moments of doubt) and don't have to be talked down from the ledge every other day. Confidence is not the opposite of humility—arrogance is.

We've all seen arrogant aspiring writers. The ones who lash out at anyone who dares criticize their masterpiece. Who insist it's your fault for being dense if you can't keep track of their fifteen different narrators. Who don't care if you tell them word counts much over 100k make publishing pros twitchy—not a single word can be cut from their 450k word debut thriller. Who say they will never change X about their novel (title, character's name, their vision of printing the whole thing in Comic Sans) no matter what a publisher says.

It ain't sexy.

(Okay, those were extreme examples, but even when you scale them back, I'm thinking they're not too attractive.)

Humble writers do their research on the publishing industry and don't blame 'the system' for all their problems. They handle critique like a pro, not giving in to every beta reader's whim, but being open to possible improvement. They'll aspire for greatness, knowing there will always be more to learn, and never claiming they've already arrived and why haven't you acknowledged it yet?!

Is there anything that helps you find the balance, neither tearing yourself down nor puffing yourself up? Working with my tailor-made, long-term critique partners helps me—more on that soon.

Friday, June 24, 2011

What Writing YA is Really Like

Oh, my. It's the summer of Let's Insult YA Authors, Readers, and Teenagers in General.

First, there was this now-infamous article in the Wall Street Journal. It could have had some valid points, but if so, they got obscured in sweeping generalizations. (BTW, I shop at Barnes & Noble all the time, I live in the YA section, and I find all kinds of books that aren't dark or about "vampires and suicide and self-mutilation." In fact, I regularly walk out with books that just about any parent would find appropriate for a 13-year-old.)

Then there was this rather odd article titled "Writing Young-Adult Fiction" by Katie Crouch and Grady Hendrix (co-authors of The Magnolia League). Their backgrounds are in literary fiction and journalism, respectively, and they got tagged to write their YA novel. The article seems like it should be about what it says—writing YA fiction. By the end, I wasn't sure what it was about, other than their book.

I began to feel like something strange was going on with this line:
It would be creepy if we included explicit sex scenes with glistening young skin and heaving young bosoms, but we keep it on the clean side. This isn't Twilight. No slutty werewolves here.
Um, I've read Twilight—the whole series, in fact. As I recall, there's one off-page sex scene in the fourth book. So I began to suspect that these authors haven't read the books. If they haven't read those, do they know anything about the YA market, really?

Then they mention how odd it is that they're "being paid good money to be literary predators and come for people's children." Now I get the feeling they don't know many (any?) teenagers in real life, either.

Overall, it seems their experience of writing a YA novel was a lot of giggling and silliness and hurry-up-and-get-it-done-ness. Writing their own wish-fulfillment fantasy, the "high-school experience we never had."

Okay, that's their experience. Good for them.

I haven't gotten paid for my YA writing yet, but I think I've done enough now to speak to my own experience. Here's what YA writing is like for me.

I live in fear of letting my students down. My students range from 14 to 21, and they read almost exclusively YA (aside from what their English teachers assign them). They are my little microcosm of the YA market, from voracious to reluctant readers, straight-A students to strugglers, jocks to theater geeks—with a ton of overlap within and between categories.

I've had students literally slam a book down during silent reading time. They hate it when characters do stupid things just for the sake of the plot—and yes, they do notice. They hate feeling talked-down to. They loathe dialogue that feels like a trying-too-hard adult wrote it.

You know what they like? Some actually like a clever turn of phrase, a well-crafted description. One girl asked me to recommend a book that would help push her vocabulary and comprehension. (I recommended The Monstrumologist.) Some want to be writers themselves. They like characters that are complex and twist stereotypes. They like stories that feel real, even (or especially) when they involve fantastic elements.

So I work my butt off. I draft, revise, run it by readers (both students and adult YA readers/writers), and revise again. Whatever I can do to make it real. If you didn't figure it out already, I talk to teens (students, cousins, whatever) about books. I talk to them about life.

I talk to them like they're people ... because they are.

There's the key, I think. I've known some (well-meaning) teachers who talk to teens like they're still in elementary school. Teens aren't adults yet, but they also aren't children. I've found they'll usually live up to high expectations ... or down to low ones.

The best YA authors (and I'm certainly not placing myself among them) have high expectations for their readers. The read can be light or dark, funny or intense, about mermaids or cutting.

Just respect your readers. They're pretty smart cookies ... even the ones who don't like math class. ;-)

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Potential Pitfalls: Writing Blind (v2.0)

Perhaps some of you wondered why this post was labeled "v1.0" ... here's the answer.

There's another way of interpreting "writing blind" beyond an awareness of the audience—awareness of the plot.

If you've been hanging around online writers' communities, you're probably familiar with the terms planner and pantser. It's not so much "either-or" as it is a spectrum. On the extreme planner end you have writers who outline chapter by chapter, construct copious background notes, and have everything clearly laid out before they write the first scene. On the other end, you have writers who truly fly by the seat of their pants. They sit down with just the barest seed of an idea—maybe the main character, or a slice of a premise—and start writing.

At that extreme pantser end of things, we run the risk of writing blind. Having no idea where the plot is going, and thus writing scenes that go nowhere.

Even at that extreme, this pitfall is still only potential. If we recognize that major editing will be required after the first draft, once the story has found its shape, it can work out just fine. But there's a key:

Somewhere along the way, we're not writing blind anymore.

At some point, we have to figure out where we're going. Otherwise, we're going to end up with 200k words of episodic scenes and no end in sight. Characters may still throw curve-balls, unexpected twists may emerge, changes may be required. That's all okay and part of the fun. But we need to get a bead on the main conflict and resolving it.

Of course, being a super-extreme planner ... well, that's another potential pitfall.

All you pantsers out there, what methods do you apply to your madness? What's your editing process like once the first draft is done?

The Hunger Pangs—Bonus!

Thanks to those of you who've been reading "The Hunger Pangs" over the past couple of weeks. I'm sure my student appreciates the kind comments. She also wrote the following list of Eiffie's Rules of the Hunger Games. Hope you like it!

1. I will not call Katniss “Robin Hood.”

2. I will not ask Plutarch Heavensbee if his house is black and yellow.

3. Gale is not Taylor Lautner.

4. I will not sing “The Hanging Tree” to Katniss’s mom or the Gallows.

5. I will not call Finnick “Percy Jackson” or “Poseidon.”

6. I will not say “crazy” in front of Annie.

7. I will not ask Katniss where her band of Merry Men is.

8. No, Peeta will not make a free cake for you.

9. I will not ask the Gamemakers to play Chutes and Ladders with me.

10. Do not call President Snow “Snow White.”

11. Do not cross out Bird in the book To Kill a Mockingbird and replace it with “Jay” and give it to Katniss.

12. Do not call Glimmer “Britney Spears.”

13. Do not attempt to stand in the rain hungry outside Peeta’s house and hope he will give you bread and fall in love with you.

14. I will not set Katniss on fire and call her “the girl on fire” while she’s screaming.

15. Do not say, “Look! It’s Taylor Lautner!” to [redacted] when it’s actually Gale.

16. I will not call Katniss “Tweety.”

17. I will not wear my “Down with the Capitol!” T-shirt to the Capitol.

18. District 13 is not the setting of Resident Evil.

19. President Coin isn’t on the quarter, and don’t call her “George Washington.”

20. Don’t call Prim “House,” or her mother, for that matter.

21. Don’t tell Cinna that you like Ralph Lauren better.

22. I will not play with Katniss’s bow or Finnick’s trident.

23. Don’t tell Peeta that he can “frost your cake any day.”

24. Don’t call Beetee “Jimmy Neutron.”

25. The Arena isn’t a place to watch hockey.

26. I will not call the Mutts “Scooby Doo.”

27. I will not sell morphling to Johanna Mason.

28. Don’t call Darius “Darius Rucker” and expect him to sing country songs.

29. I will not call the Peacekeepers “hippies.”

30. Don’t try to see Finnick Odair in his underwear.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Short Story: The Hunger Pangs (Part Nine)

And now, the conclusion!

Part Nine: The Beginning of the End

A bunch of centaurs with spears charge towards Pita and me, forcing us out of the cave.

“This is the entrance to Narnia! Do you guys belong in Narnia? No!” a centaur rants at us.

The centaurs keep chasing us until we’re by the Cornastupia. Pita and I hide in the golden horn so the centaurs can’t get to us. However, Baito and Blove come towards the Cornastupia since they’re being chased by a pack of werewolves.

“Aaah! We’re being chased by Jacob’s pack of werewolves!” Baito screams.

Sure enough, Jacob and his werewolf pack from Twilight are after Baito and Blove, and they quickly overtake them.

“That’ll teach you to mess with Bella!” Jacob yells.

“But we didn’t mess with Bella, we just asked who she was!” Baito screeches. Baito and Blove are both pretty bloodied up and they look miserable. I take out my bow and arrows. I head over to the pack of wolves and shoot both Baito and Blove in the head.

“Hey, thanks for killing them for us!” Jacob says.

I nod, and soon the wolf pack goes away. Pita and I are the only contestants left. I don’t want to kill Pita. He just stopped being annoying.

“Katnip, I don’t want to kill you,” Pita admits.

“I don’t want to kill you.”

“There can only be one winner,” the voice in the sky says.

I walk over to a bush of berries. They’re nightlock berries, and they’ll kill you when they hit your stomach. I hand Pita a berry and keep one for myself, and we both swallow them.

We die. Take that, Crapitol!

* * * * *

Hope you enjoyed it. And finally: Eiffie's Rules of the Hunger Games.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Short Story: The Hunger Pangs (Part Eight)

Do I really need to link to the other parts? Just click "The Hunger Pangs" down in the labels area. ;-)

This is the penultimate chapter! I love the end of this one. Enjoy!

Part Eight: The Hunger Pangs is a Lot Better than Narnia

Pita and I arrive at a cave that should hide us pretty well. I go in to see if it’s safe, and after walking for a few seconds, I arrive in a forest, and there’s a lantern there.

“Huh?” I say, puzzled. Then a little girl on a white horse trots in front of me and stops. “Uh, hi. Who are you and where am I?”

“I’m Lucy, and you’re in the magical land of Narnia,” she tells me.


“Yeah, I know. This story sucks, I mean, we worship a lion named Aslan here! How stupid is that?”

“Okay, bye.” I take slow steps back, leaving Lucy and Narnia behind. I go back to Pita. “It’s safe if you don’t go too far.”

He shrugs. “Alright.”

“You know, Pita, you’re actually cute when you’re not singing those Justin Bieber songs,” I admit.

“Really, you think so?” he asks. “Glad to hear it. You know, I’ve actually liked you for a long time.” Pita crawls towards me.

“Okay, I don’t think you’re that cute.”

“I know, but we have to pretend to like each other for the audience.” He raises his eyebrows.

So we engage in this totally phony romance for the audience, and it’s a really boring story. So let’s skip to the part where we’re forced to get out of the cave and go towards the Cornastupia.

* * * * *

Next time, "The Hunger Pangs" concludes with Part Nine: The Beginning of the End.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Short Story: The Hunger Pangs (Part Seven)

We're almost to the exciting conclusion! Prior parts: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6.

Part Seven: Beaver Fever

I lost my ally so I just walk in the forest, awaiting any other dangers. My one ear is still deaf, so I make sure to be extra careful. Then I arrive at a stream, where I take a nice long drink and fill my Barbie water bottle.

“Baby, baby, baby ...”

I hear Pita. I look around the stream, and sure enough, I see Pita lying on top of a dam surrounded by beavers.

“Pita!” I shout. He stops singing.

“Katnip!” he says gleefully. “Come meet my beaver friends. They love my singing.”

I walk over to him and he doesn’t look good. He has a cut in his leg from the batarang and it’s oozing pus. Red lines spread out from it. He must have a blood infection. The beavers huddle around him, keeping him warm.

“Pita, you need medicine.”

“I know, I’m having these singing outbrea—I need somebody to loooove!” Pita sings.

I feel his forehead, and it’s dangerously hot. Then, I feel Pita’s lips on mine. Eeeww! I squeal in my head. I play along, though. Maybe we can get sympathy from the audience.

“There’s gonna be one less lonely girl, one less lonely girl,” he sings once he breaks away.

“Pita, it seems you have Bieber Fever,” I say. I look at the beavers. “Or beaver fever.” I hear a voice in the sky.

“Attention, tributes,” the voice says. “By the Cornastupia, there are backpacks with your district’s name on it, containing something you need.”

I’m already racing for the Cornastupia. Once I arrive, I see Baito running for the backpacks along with the huge guy from District 11. I grab Pita’s bag and I run for it, but the guy from District 11, Plush, is in front of me. He slams my head with his Tonka truck. I ignore the blinding pain and spring for the forest. I hear Plush scream until he falls silent. Plush is dead.

I see the stream ahead of me, and I hand the pack to Pita. I plunge my head beneath the freezing water to numb my injury. I grab a beaver and put it to my head. The beaver doesn’t protest.

Pita takes out a CD player and an AC/DC CD. He inserts the disc into the player and puts the headphones over his ears. The red lines emanating from his cut dissipate, and soon the cut is just a scar.

“Pita?” I check to make sure he’s okay.

“I’m alright.”

“Are you sure? You won’t sing Justin Bieber anymore?”

“Nope,” he tells me. “’Cause I am TNT, watch me explode!” he sings. Oh lord, now it’s AC/DC. At least it’s not as annoying as Justin Bieber. “I’m joking, Katnip.”

I sigh in relief. “Oh good!”

“Today’s announcement is brought to you by Oxi Clean!” the voice in the sky says. I look up, and there’s a projection of Billy Mays smiling next to a bucket of Oxi Clean. “Right now, the only tributes left are the District 2 contestants, Baito and Blove, and the District 12 contestants, Pita and Katnip. May the odds be ever in your favor!” Then, there’s a slideshow of the dead.

I turn to Pita. “Let’s run.”

* * * * *

Stay tuned for Part Eight: The Hunger Pangs is a Lot Better than Narnia.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Potential Pitfalls: Writing Blind (v1.0)

Like all great potential pitfalls, this one is tricky because it involves a balancing act.

First, my inspiration for this post.

Exhibit 1: Riley Redgate's post on writing what you know (or not)

Exhibit 2: Allison Winn Scotch's post on whether writers must be readers

These got me thinking about something I've come across, and a trap I hope I've steered well clear of—writing a novel with no knowledge of the genre/category.

Yes, I've seen writers attempting a fantasy without ever reading any. Others writing for teens without reading a single book from the YA shelves.

I'm sure if you look, you can find a handful of examples where an author did their own thing without any real knowledge of what came before, and yet was wildly successful. Perhaps I'll do another Potential Pitfalls post on acting like exceptions are the rule. More often, the writer's lack of reader-knowledge is neon-sign obvious.

How so? A common sign in YA is teen characters that feel like they were written by an adult. The voice is off, the actions don't fit—either coming across as a stiff adult in a teen's body, or falling deep into stereotype. Sometimes it's harder to put my finger on, but I have this instinctive feeling that the writer (a) has little-to-no meaningful contact with teens, and (b) hasn't read a YA novel published within the last five years (or even ten).

But like I said, it's a balancing act, because there's another pitfall right across from this one: Unintentional Rip-Off. Oh, and there's one in front of it, too: Authorial Laryngitis (Loss of Voice).

I know some writers that don't read fiction while they're drafting a novel (but may read non-fiction during that time). That's a strategy that makes sense to me. Some of us are susceptible to having another writer's voice seep into ours if we're reading and drafting at the same time.

I guess the bottom line is, know the conventions and requirements of your genre, but find your own voice and story. You know what they say, if it were easy ...

Any opinions on reading within your genre? I didn't discuss reading other genres, but there are benefits there as well. Thoughts?

Monday, June 13, 2011

Short Story: The Hunger Pangs (Part Six)

The catch-up links: One, Two, Three, Four, and Five.

And now, we get some action and drama. Enjoy!

Part Six: Unlikely Allies

I wake up to a sharp sting on my cheek.

“Ow,” I murmur, rubbing my face.

“It’s about time you woke up, Dogbreath!” I hear a squeaky voice say. I turn around and find Rue.

“Rue? Why didn’t you kill me?” I ask. The little, dark-skinned girl glares at me.

“I could if you want me to!” she threatens. I shrink away from her.

“No, I’m good.”

“Okay. Well, I was thinking we could be allies,” she proposes.

“Allies?” I rub my head, which hurts like hell. “Why would you want to be allies with me?”

“Easy, you’re good at shooting that thing.” She gestures toward the bow and arrow. “And I am good with plant identification since I’m from District 11. We would make a good team.”

“Well, alright,” I agree. We shake hands.

“Now, let’s move, Toilet Licker!” Rue commands.

I grab my bow and arrows. “Uh, I have a question.”

“Well, out with it!”

“How many people died at the Cornastupia yesterday? And keep your voice down!” I whisper to her.

“Half, so twelve are left. Actually, now there are eleven since the Cracker Jackers killed stupid Glitter,” Rue tells me. “But I have a plan.”

“What’s your plan?”

“Let’s blow up the Careers’ stuff!”

“Why? The stuff they have is stupid.”

“True, but they’ll find a use for it, and it’s fun blowing stuff up!” Rue squeals, almost jittering with excitement.

“Also true,” I admit. “How will we blow it up?”

“The Careers had a guy from District Three activate land mines from the arena entrances and put them around their supplies. There are some Teletubby figurines hanging off a crate of apples. Just shoot the crate with your weapon and make the figures fall. Then, it’ll go boom!”

“Alright, I like it,” I say.

“Great, I will stay here with the stuff while you go do that. Sound good?”


“Then go do it, dum-dum!” Rue screams at me.

So I do. I march over to the Careers’ camp by the lake, and I spot their stuff. I will allow myself only three arrows to make the Teletubbies fall. I shoot the first arrow. It just makes them shake. I shoot the second arrow. They inch closer to the edge. I shoot the third arrow and they finally fall, making the stockpile explode. I’m thrown back and land next to a charred Barney doll. I listen for footsteps. I hear some in one ear, but the other ear is deaf.

I get up and run for Rue. I arrive at the spot where Rue is supposed to be and see her battling a guy in a Batman suit. It must be Marvel, the guy from District 1. Who else would wear a superhero costume?

“Katnip! Help!” Rue yells.

“Cat naps yelp?” I ask, confused.

“No, help!”

“No kelp?”

“No! He—”

Marvel kills Rue with a Batarang, and he throws one at me. I bend over. Marvel takes out another one.

“I’m coming for you!”

I hear singing. Pita! He gets the Batarang that was aimed at me and he throws it at Marvel, who falls to the ground dead. Pita runs away, limping while singing.

“I’ll never let you go!”

Wow, Pita saved me. I turn to look at him again, but he’s gone. I go over to Rue’s body and kick it.

“Sorry you died, dogbreath,” I say mournfully.

* * * * *

Next time, Part Seven: Beaver Fever.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Potential Pitfalls: Dead Horse Beating

I'm going to start an occasional series on potential pitfalls in fiction. Mostly things I've noticed (and am trying to eradicate) in my own work, or things that irk me as a reader.

First up, the over-explanation, telling readers what they already know. It can happen in a range of ways, including single line statements-of-obvious. I'm focusing more on full explanations in dialogue. It's sort of the opposite of As-You-Know-Bob syndrome. In this case, Bob doesn't know the following information, but the reader does.

And it's really, really annoying to read.

There are times one character needs to explain to another what has happened, what the plan is, etc. I can only think of a few times this should happen "live" on the page.

  1. When revealing information previously withheld from the reader. I have a little of this in one of my novels, where I've only hinted at things, until the MC reveals her secrets later on. Hopefully (if I've pulled it off right), this kind of explanation is rewarding to the reader, verifying their guesses or giving some surprises.
  2. When the explain-ee's reaction is important to the plot. Is this information going to prompt a major event? Divorce filing? Attempted murder? Okay, maybe something a little less extreme could work, too.
  3. When the explain-ee will have new information to add. Maybe the reader already knows the MC's half of the story, but another character may have info to fill in gaps that change the whole outlook.

(Could have sworn I had a #4 in mind. Will add if I remember it.)

An important note: #1 is often the only time you might need to play out the full conversation. Many of these are situations where tell-don't-show is actually the best course. (I summarized everything we knew so far.)

In most other situations where it's necessary to fill in another character, there's one strategy I find particularly effective: the art of the skillful scene/chapter break.

Character 1: "We have a lot to talk about."


Character 2: "Say WHAT?" (or other appropriate reaction)

Can you think of other situations where playing out information the reader already knows may be desirable? Do you have strategies for avoiding the for-Pete's-sake-we-already-know-this reaction from your readers?

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Short Story: The Hunger Pangs (Part Five)

For those just tuning in: Part One, Part Two, Part Three, and Part Four.

I have to say, I adore the final line of this part. It's just so ... well, you'll see.

Part Five: Cracker Jackers

I climb a tall tree and hide my eyesore of a backpack. Soon, the voices take shape, and I see who they are—Careers, from the wealthier districts. Careers spend their whole lives training for the Hunger Pangs. They think it’s an honor to be chosen. Usually, the winner is one of the Careers. These Careers seem to have made a pact to work together until everyone but them is dead, and then they’ll go against each other.

“What did you get from the Cornastupia?” a guy whose name I think is Baito asks.

“I got this lousy bow and arrow set,” a girl named Glitter answers. I know it’s an odd name; her parents are celebrities.

I want her bow and arrow set, but I’m not sure how to get it. I see movement in the tree next to me. My head quickly turns in the direction of the movement. It’s a girl named Rue from District 11. Man, she’s an angry girl! She tells everybody they’ll rue the day, but no one ever did anything to her.

Rue points to something above me, and I see what it is. A nest of Cracker Jackers. The Crapitol makes these strange animals sometimes, like the Hamburjay and the Cracker Jackers. the Cracker Jackers are shaped like crackers, but they pack quite a sting. They make you feel terrible and hallucinate if you get stung by one.

“Thank you,” I mouth to her. I break off a stick from the tree, but the Careers never notice. I shove the Cracker Jacker nest so it falls on them. Baito and a few other Careers scatter, but Glitter isn’t so lucky. The Cracker Jackers are on her immediately. Hmm, they must hate Bradgelina, her celebrity parents.

I race down the tree and pry the bow and arrow set from her dying hands. Then, I run for it.

I notice I’m surrounded by butterflies. I dance with them, and they start to land on my arms, tickling me. I start giggling. Then, one lands on my nose. I cry out. The butterflies look like Donald Trump!

“Aaaaah!” I scream. Then butterflies cover me, tickling me so I collapse in a fit of laughter and screaming. Then I drown; I drown in a sea of butterflies.

* * * * *

Next up, Part Six: Unlikely Allies.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Short Story: The Hunger Pangs (Part Four)

If you're late to the game(s), get caught up: Part One, Part Two, and Part Three.

Part Four: The Hunger Pangs Begin

The next morning, we are taken to the arena of the Hunger Pangs. I wave goodbye to the Crapitol and sit back in my seat. I’m being sent to my death, and worse, I’m being sent to my death with Pita Hellark. He’s humming the tune “Overboard,” so I plug my ears. After a while, the windows of the plane go black. We’re almost to the arena.

“Pita, you better pray,” I advise him.

Pita closes his eyes. “I close my eyes, and I can see a better day. I close my eyes and pray,” he sings quietly.

“Shut up!” I tell him. Miraculously, he does.

The plane lands, and we are put in tubes that take us to the arena, which is a forest similar to the one in District 12. I look at my outfit which consists of a green shirt that matches my skin color, simple pants, a thin jacket that reflects heat, and my Hamburjay pin. Haysnitch gave Pita and me some advice before we were sent here. I run his words in my mind again.

“Don’t get anything from the Cornastupia. Just run and try not to die,” Haysnitch told me earlier. The Cornastupia is filled with stupid, useless things such a matchbox cars, Windex, or pressed flowers. The list goes on. Sometimes, though, you can find a use for them.

I look at the arena. There’s a lake to the right, and the rest is just woods. Most of the contestants will obviously go to the lake because of the water, so I will want to head into the forest. I observe the items at the Cornastupia. There’s a backpack a few feet from me and a kid set of bows and arrows a bit farther. I don’t care what Haysnitch says. I’m going to get something, and then I will run for my life.

Then something like an elk’s mating call sounds. That must be the bell. Oh dear, I just lost a few seconds figuring that out, so I start moving. I sprint for the backpack, but I feel something hit me. A contestant behind me is pounding a stuffed animal that looks like Big Bird on me. I have to run faster. Death by Big Bird would be terrible!

I grab the backpack and sprint for the forest, but I slam into this huge, olive-skinned boy. He has a Tonka truck hoisted high. I duck before the toy can slam into my head. Then I run as far away from the Cornastupia as I can. When I feel too tired to keep running, I stop and check out my backpack.

“It’s hot pink with Barbie and Ken on it, eww,” I complain. I open it and find a Barbie water bottle, Barbie sleeping bag, Barbie camp chair, and Barbie flashlight. Oh, there’s also a Barbie tent. I think, overall, I probably got a good deal. Normally, few things in the Cornastupia are for camping. I continue hiking until I suddenly hear voices behind me.

* * * * *

Come back for Part Five: Cracker Jackers!

Boundaries of Bashing

My perfectionism makes me a little critical. (For evidence, see my opinion on eBook formatting or my breakdown of e-reader apps.) This extends pretty much to all areas of my life.

In my day job, I spend a lot of time around ASL interpreters. I frequently find myself feeling conflicted. On one side, I've known some seriously awesome interpreters, and I know without a doubt I can't do their job. In fact, I've had to in a pinch once or twice. One of those occasions sparked a near panic-attack. (There's a reason interpreters usually work in pairs and switch off every 20-30 minutes. When I got to around 45 minutes, I went into vapor lock.)

On the other side, mistakes drive me nuts. Or worse, when I see a completely unqualified interpreter botching up everything. When I'm in a position where I'm signing and an interpreter is voicing for me, I pray to have earplugs. For one thing, it's just hard to concentrate. For another, any little pause or minor misinterpretation convinces me my signing skills are really that terrible.

And I admit, sometimes after enduring something with a really poor interpreter, I have to vent a little to one of my colleagues.

Even then, I try to remind myself at all times that it's an extremely difficult job—one I cannot do. I try to keep my venting to appropriate venues. When I'm in a position to help an interpreter improve, I do what I can. At the end of the day, I respect their effort, their training, and the difficulty of their job. And by and large, the interpreters I've dealt with fall into the Camp of Awesome.

What's my point? Oh, look, here comes a writing connection!

It's likewise easy from the writer's side of things to criticize how others in the industry do their jobs. Gripe about agents' long response times. Claim editors are out-of-touch. Rant about the stupidity of anyone and everyone in the publishing business.

There are certainly valid criticisms and discussions to be had on many publishing topics. When it crosses into agent/editor/publisher-bashing, I get a yucky feeling. It just ain't pretty, and it's definitely not professional.

Yes, I'm sure they make mistakes. I'm sure there are things they could (and maybe should) do better. Everyone on this planet has room to improve, even (especially) in our areas of expertise. But respect the job, respect the effort, respect the experience and training. Bashing is never the result of respect.

And for more on handling ourselves professionally, check out this post. Yeah, I'm even critical about responding to criticism.

Where do you draw that line between criticism/accountability and straight-up bashing?

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Short Story: The Hunger Pangs (Part Three)

I'm back with another part of the parody by a student. Make sure you read Part One and Part Two first. Enjoy!

Part Three: William Tell

In the morning, Pita and I meet our mentor, Haysnitch Aberskunky. He is the only living District 12 victor. When we meet, he’s drunk and smells like a skunk.

“Yo! Aberskunky! What do we do for training?” I ask.

“Uhhhh. Don’t show off,” Haysnitch slurs. “Nobody should know your talents.”

“Okay, so I’ll go light on the archery, and you...” I look at Pita. “Don’t irritate anyone.” Pita nods. I guess he finally figured out that his singing sucks.

Pita and I march off to training, where some tributes are already practicing with the weapons. They scare me, so I drag Pita over to the plant identification training station.

“Helloooo! My name is Billy Mays! Would you like to see my ad for Oxi Clean?” the trainer inquires.

“Uh, unless Oxi Clean is a plant, no thanks,” I tell him.

“But Oxi Clean can make your green skin nice and white again.”

“No, thanks.”

“Awww...Okay, I’ll teach you some plant identification skills.”

Pita and I have to listen to his annoying voice for a full hour before moving on to the next station. We just move from station to station, awaiting our private sessions with the Gamemakers, which will be scored on a scale of 0 to 12. 0 is really bad and 12 is awesome. Of course, District 12 is last so I enter a room full of drunk and bored Gamemakers. I start shooting arrows at the target shaped like a hot dog, hitting the center every time.

“Hot dog, hot dog, hot diggity dog,” a gamemaker sings. I turn around and see he’s singing with an apple on his head.

“If I were you, I’d pay attention!” I scold him. I shoot an arrow at the apple on his head, but instead, I hit his Adam’s apple. Eh, close enough. The gamemaker chokes on his own blood and dies.

“Hey!” another gamemaker calls to me. “Good job! We hated that guy!” I smirk and go out of the room. Pita goes in next and is out of there shortly.

“Eenie meenie miney moe, catch a bad girl by her toe. If-if-if she holla let her go!” Pita sings. “I heard you were a bad girl!”

I think of how I shot the gamemaker’s Adam’s apple with my arrow. “Yeah, I had a William Tell moment.”

We wait for our scores, and I get an 11. Yeah! I rock! Pita gets an 8 and I’m surprised. “What did you do to get an 8?”

“I sang. They told me if I stopped singing, they would give me an 8!” Pita answers.

I can only shake my head.

* * * * *

Up next ... Part Four: The Hunger Pangs Begin

Monday, June 6, 2011

Wrenches! I Need More Wrenches!

Yeah, I know, everyone reads that as "wenches" the first time. I don't write that kind of fantasy.

You ever get that feeling that you just aren't making things rough enough for your characters? Like things are moving along a little too swimmingly and it's time to throw another wrench in?

(I know, it's called conflict. I find I do better if I approach writing in more figurative terms than analytical. I could analyze the crap out of my writing ... and in doing so, I'd analyze the life out of it, too.)

This has been particularly on my mind lately since my current WIP is an expansion of a short story. The short has ended up being just a launching point, more or less, and I know where the general arc is going. But to get this to novel length, I realized I needed to pull several wrenches that were still sitting comfortably in the toolbox. More speed bumps and detours for my MC, all tying together to shape the final conflict. (Hopefully.)

I've also noticed I tend to opt for smaller wrenches when larger ones would be more interesting, powerful, motivating, etc. Why do I shy off from making things really hard on my characters? Maybe because a part of me always wants things to work out and be happy. (Hello, optimist!) Maybe because I get mad at certain writers for doing things like killing off certain characters. (She knows I'm glaring at her right now.)

But a writer's gotta do what a writer's gotta do.

At the same time, I don't want to do things just to emotionally manipulate my readers. Annoyed as I am with that writer, I know she killed that character for a reason. There should always be a reason, even if it isn't glaringly obvious on the surface.

So my goal on this current project is to go ahead and make things hard for my MC. Give her reason to doubt, reason to despair, reason to possibly make the wrong choice(s). Because hopefully doing so will make the resolution that much more satisfying when she finally gets there.

Do any of you have similar struggles with getting your characters to, well, struggle enough? Do any of you tend toward the opposite extreme from me, using a hefty torque wrench when a little half-inch crescent wrench would be more appropriate? (Does doing so result in a soap opera?) Any ideas about finding that balance between way-too-hunky-dory and letting Murphy's Law become more fundamental than gravity?

Please, let me know. My MC is eyeballing the latest wrench in my hand, and I'm afraid she might try to wrestle me for it.